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Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address: Good Winners and Bad Losers

March 4, 2021

by Professor Lucas Morel

Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, March 4, 1861; unknown photographer (possibly Alexander Gardiner). Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-07636.

When Lincoln became president on March 4, 1861, white citizens of seven slaveholding states no longer considered themselves citizens of the United States of America. Unwilling to accept a Republican president, whom they considered a sectional candidate devoted to abolishing slavery, southern Democrats ignored the outcome of the presidential election, renounced any allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, and called it “secession.” They then formed the “Confederate States of America” with a constitution that explicitly protected “the right of property in negro slaves.” To put it lightly, they were “bad losers.”

For republics to work, they must produce “good losers” and “good winners.” Obedience on the part of the political losers must be matched by good faith on the part of the political winners. As Thomas Jefferson stated in his First Inaugural Address, “All too will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” Elections matter, but self-government ultimately had to express more than mere majority self-interest. It had to maintain the rights of the minority, which fundamentally were the rights possessed by all of the citizenry. In doing so, republics over time would inspire and maintain the support of political minorities.

In 1856, Republicans acted as good losers. They did not chant “Not My President” or preach resistance when their candidate John C. Frémont lost. Instead of seceding, they accepted the “doughface Democrat” James Buchanan of Pennsylvania as the president of the United States. But over the next four years, they also redoubled their efforts to persuade fellow citizens that Republican principles and policies were best suited not only to save the American union, but, as Lincoln declared in 1854, “to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.”

After the 1860 election, northern Democrats also acted as good losers. Lincoln drew the nation’s attention to this when he stopped at Trenton, New Jersey, on February 21, 1861, en route to his inauguration. New Jersey had split their electoral college votes between Lincoln and a fusion ticket headed by Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Nevertheless, despite not voting for Lincoln, a state senate dominated by Democrats honored the incoming Republican president by warmly receiving his brief address in their Senate chambers. “They came forward here,” Lincoln noted, “to greet me as the constitutional President of the United States.” Seven states had seceded by that point, and Lincoln believed the nation could use an object lesson on how a truly self-governing people acted when in the political minority. He would teach this lesson more directly in his inaugural address, where he showed he would be a good winner while also explaining why a constitutional republic could not tolerate bad losers.

When Lincoln was sworn in as president on March 4, 1861, the nation’s first Republican president assured southern slaveowners that he had neither the “lawful right” nor “inclination” to “interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.” Furthermore, he exhorted Congress to uphold the notorious fugitive slave clause of the Constitution. However, he also suggested that a more equitable Fugitive Slave Act be passed to ensure that a free person not be “surrendered as a slave.” Lincoln went so far as to cite the Constitution’s “privileges and immunities” clause to bring the Fugitive Slave Act into closer alignment with “all the safeguards of liberty known in civilized and humane jurisprudence.” Being a good winner meant affirming the constitutional rights of slaveowners while also expressing the anti-slavery convictions of the constitutional majority that elected him and fellow Republicans into federal office.

Lincoln chose not to make explicit the difference of opinion he and fellow Republicans had with the Supreme Court over Congress’ authority regarding slavery in the federal territories. The Republican platform denied “the authority of Congress . . . to give legal existence to slavery in any territory of the United States.” Given the fractured union of the states, Lincoln obliquely alluded to his party’s disagreement with Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s ruling in the 1857 Dred Scott case. But he did not invite Congress to pass a law to prevent slavery from expanding into the federal territories. That Republican priority would have to wait as Lincoln tried to coax seceding states back into the union, and convince loyal slave states not to join the newly formed Confederacy.

Presenting all that he thought “reasonable” to those who did not vote for him, Lincoln explained why he thought the union of American states was perpetual and therefore secession was not a legitimate response to the grievances of particular states. He punctuated his analysis by describing secession as “the essence of anarchy.” To kowtow to any political minority would constitute a profound rejection of the principle of government by the consent of the governed, which in practice had to be a constitutional majority—what Lincoln called “the only true sovereign of a free people.” The only alternatives were anarchy or despotism. Good winners and good losers had to be the American way of self-government.

In the end, Lincoln’s inaugural address balanced a need to assuage discontented slaveholding states while insisting on the right of the president to act according to his constitutional authority. After a decade of increasingly divisive politics, this would prove a mighty task. He hoped that he convinced enough Americans of his intentions to be a “good winner” in order to keep more states from seceding. Tragically, not enough Americans heeded what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” And the war came.

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